Special Report: Broadcast technology

This special report from the March 2016 edition of SportsPro magazine looks at the rapidly developing future of broadcasting, and the technology that is driving change.

Special Report: Broadcast technology

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Points of View


By Adam Nelson
 

Broadcasting technology has come a long way in the 90 years since John Logie Baird debuted his first television systems. Producers are increasingly using modern innovations to immerse audiences in the action, finding new and novel ways to bring increased value to their productions.

 

In 1931, Freddie Fox rode Cameronian to victory in the Epsom Derby, the first of two such victories for the jockey. The event would have passed, as so many Derbies before it, into unremarkable history, if not for the presence of a certain Scotsman and his camera. John Logie Baird, ‘the father of television’, had worked in cooperation with the BBC to make this race the first ever remote outside television broadcast – and therefore the first live televised sporting event in history. The camera used by Baird that day took his team three days to set up at the finishing line at the racecourse. Just 29 people owned ‘Televisors’, as they were marketed by the Baird Television Company, capable of receiving the signal.

In the decades that followed, developments in sports broadcasting technology were few and far between. The Berlin Olympics in 1936 became the first sporting event to be watched remotely by a mass audience – though it was to cinemas in Berlin and Potsdam, not to people’s living rooms, that those Games were broadcast. The following year saw the first ever airing of a live soccer match, to the few hundred people in the London area who owned televisions at the time, when the BBC showed 15 minutes from a specially arranged fixture between English side Arsenal and their own reserve squad.

The broadcast set-ups at these early televised events were understandably simple affairs – a single wide-lens camera taking in as much of the action as it could, complemented by static pitchside cameras which could show brief glimpses from a closer point of view, because even something as simple as changing the feed from one camera to another was a complicated process. It took three more years for a fully multi-camera set-up to be used, this time by CBS in America, for a baseball game between the Dodgers – then of Brooklyn – and the Cincinnati Reds. A further 12 years passed with little change before, in 1951, the first colour sports broadcast, again by CBS and again of a Dodgers game. It would be 1967 before the first regular televised colour service in the UK, with that year’s Wimbledon Championships marking the format’s debut on the BBC.

Antonio Cromartie wear a GoPro to film the pre-game warm-up at last year's NFL Pro Bowl

Over the next few decades, novelties would be drip-fed into mainstream usage, often with sport driving the changes – on-screen graphical overlays and instant replays among the most notable – but evolution was slow. In recent times, however, it seems that scarcely a week goes by without a new technical innovation promising to drive sports broadcasting into the future.

“Of course, we are always looking for ways to improve the quality of our broadcasts, of ways to show our product off to the world,” says Oliver Ciesla, managing director of World Rally Championship (WRC) Promoter, the body responsible for the WRC’s television productions. “When people tune into our broadcasts that might be their first experience of rally, and we need to do everything we can to make it the most exciting, the best it can possibly be. Some of this is up to things we can do to make the format more appealing, but we are also dependent on the emerging technologies which allow us to do much more.”

Ciesla is speaking to SportsPro shortly after the WRC’s announcement of a significant deal with aerial imaging company DJI, which will film every race during the 2016 WRC season using its drone-mounted cameras, capturing the action from previously impossible vantage points.

“TV productions in rallying is very challenging logistically, it’s a big effort and cost-wise it’s very expensive,” says Ciesla. Filming a rally takes place over hundreds of kilometres in challenging terrain, with the associated equipment necessary both expensive and unwieldy.

“The general production means that we use are cameras on the ground, camera systems in the cars, on-board cameras, and helicopter filming,” Cielsa explains. “So we want innovative pictures, and also to bring down production costs. This is something where the new camera technologies can be very supportive, and where the drones can be very supportive.

“Of course, if the development of the drones and the on-board cameras allow us to do top quality level live filming, this could be a replacement for the helicopter filming, which is very expensive. If you look at the opportunities – how flexible a drone is compared to a helicopter in regard to how low it can fly, how it can stand still in the air – that gives us opportunities to film the cars in action from a different angle that the fans have never seen before. For this, depending on where we drive, the helicopter needs to be fast, and if you want to replace that with a drone with the necessity of filming at the top quality level, but also at the speed of 100km or more an hour.

“So there are many requirements that we have but we have the feeling that with the extremely fast development of this technology, it will soon deliver to us a very cost-efficient opportunity. So it solves two different objectives for us.”

Martin Brandenburg, European marketing director for DJI, doesn’t see the drones his company supplies as a direct replacement for helicopter filming, but believes they can serve as a complement to existing set-ups.

“The drones will give us a new and spectacular perspective of aerial shots,” he says. “The drones do not replace helicopters, but they are able to go where helicopters cannot. Our drones allow the camera to get down to nearly the level of the track and follow the car, they can find angles that are impossible for a helicopter to get to.”

One problem at the moment is the difficulty of using drone footage for live broadcasts. To relay the image back to a central control room requires a high-speed and steady Wi-Fi connection, something that is lacking, as Ciesla points out, in the middle of Finnish forests and other similar environments where drones are of the greatest benefit. Instead, footage is recorded directly on to the drone, and is then used for replays and highlights, with Ciesla commenting that the television directors for the race will pick out “the most spectacular points where drone filming adds the most value” for use in the broadcasts.

“In rally, the signal transmission is always a challenge,” Ciesla says. “We need more capacity to transmit more signals from anywhere. The quality of the camera is good enough, and with the development of this technology, it’s all going very fast, I’m confident that this will be quickly no problem at all. We’re using it already to capture recorded footage although not yet live.”

Brandenburg adds: “I think there is a future of drones in sports broadcasting, for sure, regarding live transmission. Where the helicopters will be high and far, we will be close and low altitude and offer to the audience a unique view of sport events. We have already experimented with live transmission, providing a unique angle at the IFSC Climbing World Cup in Chamonix last year. Installing a cable cam takes time and a lot of money; the drone can provide better view with fast operations, but the first thing is safety and we must have our clear checklist before flying to avoid accident.”

A drone camera captures spectacular close-up footage at this year's Dakar Rally

Much of what the latest wave of broadcast technologies promises comes down to putting the viewer closer to the action. Where, in the last decade, the race was to the highest picture quality – from standard definition, to 720p, to ‘full high definition’ 1080p broadcasts, improving the resolution and depth of the image itself – now, broadcasters are increasingly focusing their concerns on the variety of shots and imagery they can provide to immerse the viewer in the experience.

Developments on the picture front are still ongoing, as the recent roll-out of ultra-high definition 4K and even 8K broadcasts and television sets testifies, but without the urgency of the initial emergence of HD. Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), for instance, will not be covering this year’s Olympic Games in 4K, despite the increasing prevalence of devices capable of displaying such a resolution, because it is happy to remain in 1080p and focus on innovating in other areas which enhance the viewer’s immersion in the contest.

To that end, OBS is planning to do some amount of broadcasting from the Games using virtual reality equipment involving 360-degree cameras which allow the viewer’s movements to be tracked, putting the viewer into the scene. Ciesla is keen to introduce to this to the WRC.

“360-degree cameras could be a fantastic new way to see the on-board camera view inside or on top of the car,” he says, citing the technology’s ability to create an interactive experience as its biggest selling point. “It can allow the interactivity that a fan would like to see when you open a video on a computer or a smartphone, and it allows you to enjoy a 360-degree view from inside the car with your mouse or your touchscreen; you can move the angle of viewing.”

“360-degree cameras could be a fantastic new way to see the on-board camera view inside or on top of the car.”

For various reasons, chief among them safety, drones are not appropriate for use in indoor venues. In fully indoor arenas, or those surrounded by stands full of fans, Spidercam has become the model of choice. This is a system which sees a camera suspended from four cables, capable of moving freely around the space, allowing the camera to get right in amongst the play.

Pete Richards, coordinating producer of motorsports at Fox Sports, has used the system for AMA Superbikes coverage, precisely because of its immersive quality. “If you can’t be there in person,” he says, “this is the next best thing.

“It allows us to bring viewers closer to the action from angles that they have never seen before,” he explains, noting that no other technology allows a camera to get so close so safely to a fast-moving motorbike or, indeed, to a group of players on a pitch.

The system has caused the occasional controversy, such as in a recent one-day international cricket match between Australia and India, when a shot from Indian batsman Virat Kohli went for four, only for the ball to be called dead because it had hit the suspended Spidercam on its way through. MS Dhoni, India's limited-overs captain, criticised Spidercam as a ‘gimmick’, suggesting that operators or broadcasters be hit with a US$2,000 fine if the camera interferes with play.

It is arguably sports such as rallying which stand to benefit the most from modern advances in technology, with much more flexibility in what they can achieve with their productions, and a greater openness to experimenting with their formats. The manufacturers, in return, get a testing ground for their new products, with production companies willing to take risks in a way that directors of high-profile sports which traditionally dominate TV schedules may shy away from.

“It allows us to bring viewers closer to the action from angles that they have never seen before.”

“In the last few years, DJI has taken part in many sport events to show the effective use in terms of content production and material from a new perspective,” explains Brandenburg. “In Europe we started 2015 with the 24-hour race at Nürburgring and the IFSC Climbing World Cup, which used DJI products across their broadcasts. This year we already cooperated with Red Bull for the Crashed Ice Challenge, and will continue also in the winter sports area with Air and Style Festival in Innsbruck. We think this can be taken to any outdoor sports, it really gives something unique and adds extra value to any production.”

Notably, modern broadcasting ideas are often as focused on producing content for smaller screens as bigger ones. Much footage captured by emerging technologies, such as small, wearable cameras like GoPros, loses some of its impact when watched on a full-size television screen, but is made to be watched – and, crucially, shared – on smartphones and tablets. This is a big part of the ‘extra value’ many rights holders are looking for, particularly those of image-friendly, dynamic sports like rally and extreme winter sports which are the current main customers for much of this technology.

“What we are always seeking is opportunities to find new perspectives to show different, unique pictures that the world hasn’t seen before,” Ciesla adds. “We’ll always be hoping to take advantage of anything that can give us that.”

Below, we profile four of the most progressive camera technologies available at the moment.


 

Drones

Though most visible in the public eye for their controversial military use, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – more commonly known simply as ‘drones’ – are becoming increasingly prevalent in the worlds of sports and broadcasting.

Drones’ small size, light weight, speed, manoeuvrability and versatility have seen them rapidly become a favourite of broadcasters working in those sports which benefit from a range of angles over a greater area, often as a replacement for more cumbersome and expensive helicopter filming, but sometimes as a complement to it.

Drone filming arguably made its most notable appearance to date at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, where drones were used to gain spectacular aerial shots of ski jumping and snowboarding events, among others. A recent deal between the World Rally Championship (WRC) and drone manufacturer DJI highlighted the types of rights holders who are looking into this to illuminate their broadcasts.

One limitation with the technology is the difficulty of high-quality live broadcasting from drones, with Wi-Fi networks unstable and unable to carry large amounts of data at once, especially in the kinds of environments in which drones are most frequently being used. Another is safety: skier Marcel Hirscher was narrowly missed by a falling drone in competition during the FIS World Cup slalom race at Madonna di Campiglio in Italy on 23rd December; drones are unsuitable around masses of spectators due to the possibility of similar incidents.

Camera-fitted drones have also found another niche in the sports world, with soccer coaches using them to film training sessions, hoping the unique vantage point will help them to see errors and advantages invisible from other perspectives. Former Liverpool and Real Madrid striker Michael Owen is a prominent investor in the technology, and at last year’s Soccerex Global Convention he confirmed that his company, M7 Aerial, was providing drones to the likes of Everton manager Roberto Martínez and former Arsenal forward Thierry Henry, who was using them as he worked towards his coaching badges.

 

 

Spidercam

While drones are in their element in fully outdoor environments, attaining aerial shots in a stadium setting requires a more controlled solution. Spidercam, a device manufactured by a Hamburg-based company of the same name, is the most famous example of such a device.

Suspended from the ceiling by four Kevlar cables, Spidercams offer full 360-degree movement around an arena, allowing directors to get near the ground for a close-up of the action, and withdraw for a widescreen, bird’s eye view of the whole pitch.

Spidercam’s other benefit over drones is that it allows for live broadcasting, as its HD video signal is relayed at high-speed back to the control station along a fibre-optic cable, making even ultra-high definition 4K broadcasting possible from all over a stadium.

Though Spidercam as a company have been around since 2005 – and similar technology, such as Skycam, for longer – it is only in recent years that it has become de rigueur at sports events, as broadcasters look to add increased value to their productions. The system is now a staple of ESPN’s National Football League (NFL) coverage, and was employed in soccer at the most recent Uefa European Championship and Fifa World Cup tournaments.

 

 

GoPro

Perhaps one of the few items in a modern sports broadcaster’s arsenal likely to be in wider use by the public than professionals, GoPro’s miniature Hero cameras shot to popularity thanks to their ease of use and durability, becoming the recording device of choice for extreme sports enthusiasts on YouTube.

It is no surprise, then, that it has been similar pursuits which have found use for the action camera in the commercial space. GoPros are designed to be both lightweight and robust, meaning they can be worn on clothing more or less unnoticeably, and take a fair amount of physical punishment while still recording. Last year’s FIS Alpine World Championships saw competitors wearing the company’s cameras during downhill and slalom events, while ESPN’s X Games, the world’s biggest competitive event for extreme sports, is among GoPro’s most notable sponsorship deals.

Other deals with a wide range of sports bodies and events – from the National Hockey League to the Tour de France and MotoGP – indicate the growing desire across the industry for new and novel ways to immerse the view in the action.

As with drones, producing live streams from GoPros is still difficult, with footage generally reserved for action replays and highlights.

 

 

Virtual reality

The most advanced and, as yet, underdeveloped mode of new broadcasting technology, virtual reality or VR has been tipped as being ‘the next big thing’ for two decades but, finally, might be about to make its big breakthrough.

VR is available in several different formats, though all of them essentially use the same basic technique. Multiple cameras are set up to take in as much of an image as possible, and then a computer programme fills in the gaps and generates the ‘reality’ a user sees.

The most basic form, which requires no additional hardware on the viewer’s part and is already used in much sports programming, is the kind best represented by CBS’ EyeVision 360 technology. The broadcaster recently confirmed that its Super Bowl 50 coverage would utilise 36 cameras placed around the stadium, capable of generating a 360-degree view of any moment in the game.

More complicated systems require a headset to be worn by the viewer, and use an array of cameras photographing an area and generating a whole virtual environment which the user can observe and interact with. Though the technology is still very much in its infancy, Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) confirmed to SportsPro that it would be performing ‘experiments’ with immersive VR at this year’s Olympics in Rio, including at the opening and closing ceremonies and at one ‘highlight event’ per day.

 

Further, Clearer, Longer

 

By Adam Nelson

 

Yiannis Exarchos, the chief executive of Olympic Broadcasting Services, is set for a busy few months: not only will he organise the broadcast of the world’s biggest sporting event this summer in Rio, he is also preparing the launch of the IOC’s own Olympic Channel. He tells SportsPro how he’s performing the balancing act.

 

With this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio looming, you’d have thought Yiannis Exarchos, the chief executive of Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) host broadcasting agency, would have enough on his plate over the next few months.

Preparing to produce 6,000 hours of television content across 29 sports in 35 disciplines in the space of just 17 days might seem like enough work to keep anyone busy. At a general meeting of the IOC in late 2014, though, Exarchos announced that his plate for this Olympic year would be getting that bit fuller, as OBS and the IOC jointly confirmed plans to launch an Olympic TV channel, with Exarchos one of the key players in its development.

Though there is much to talk over and discuss with Exarchos – from his experiences working under Manolo Romero, the first managing director of OBS, to his innovative plans for Rio and beyond – when it comes to the Olympic Channel there is only one possible question to start with: why?

“I think the most eloquent answer to that is what the president of the IOC [Thomas Bach], who came up with the idea for the channel, usually says, which is that it’s an effort to get the couch potatoes out of the couch,” Exarchos explains. “Essentially it comes as a result of an increasing realisation that in today’s world there is a significant lack of opportunities for people to have a more active lifestyle, not only in the developed world but also in the developing world, in large areas of the world that are being radically urbanised now. And because of the nature of modern life, which becomes so competitive and fast-paced, there is so much less opportunity for people, especially young people, to devote time to an active lifestyle.

“This results not only in health problems but also, consistent with the ideals of the Olympic movement, we believe that sports can offer so much in building strong and healthy societies. So there is a strong belief that engagement in sports and active lifestyle can have a very strong impact in the world.”

If something in that answer feels self-contradictory – creating a television channel to get people off the sofa – it is, Exarchos claims, due to an outdated way of thinking about how content is consumed, particularly by the demographic the channel will hope to target.

Though the Olympic Channel will be available as an over-the-top (OTT) offering “on all forms of screens: mobile, tablets, PCs, and larger screens via smart TVs”, Exarchos says that OBS and the IOC will “initially prioritise mobile, because we believe that this is the entry point for the demographic we’re looking for”.

“For us,” he adds, “it’s very important that people have a very full experience already from a mobile phone because it’s very likely that they will be introduced to the channel that way and not through a traditional television set. We’re designing from the most challenging screen, which is the smallest ones, upwards.”

The channel’s aim, then, is not simply to get people watching, but to get people engaged and interacting with the content. It is about having content that is ready to be watched while out and about, shown to friends on a phone or tablet screen; shared with followers across social networks.

“One of the key priorities that we have that will be fundamental to the success of the channel is to create content that is consistent and conducive to being used in the medium that younger generations use,” Exarchos explains. “So we will see a lot of shorter-form content that can travel well and be shared across social networks and through other digital applications. We went very much for this channel to be friendly to social media and not what one would imagine as a traditional linear channel.”

"It's clear that the channel has to touch the hearts of younger people."

Clearly, this will inform the range and the kinds of content the channel will host. If the job of a traditional sports broadcaster is to bring sport to people, Exarchos says the Olympic Channel’s objective “is to bring people to sport”.

“That goes back to the core of our mission,” he says. “We are not trying to create a regular sports channel which is just coverage of one event after another, aimed at the people who are already converted to sports, already looking for sports content. We feel it is our obligation to bring people into sports in the same way that the Olympic Games do that every two or every four years. You see so many people who never follow sports in between, but they fall in love with the Olympics. But then they have nowhere to go.”

In order to make that appeal to a wider, non-sporting audience, Exarchos elaborates, there are several things that channel has to do. “Obviously, coverage of competition is fundamental and I would say that will be 50 per cent of the content of the channel, either in the form of coverage of events of international federations or other sports events properties, continental games, world games and so on,” he says. “We need to remember, though, that with the exception of very few sports, most do not enjoy today a worldwide coverage, and the channel can offer them this, whilst at the same time because of the digital environment – while absolutely respecting commercial agreements that the federations have in place – we can show competitions that otherwise would not make it on to people’s screens. So for us, one area is to fill the gaps that exist in terms of distribution of major events of the international federations.

“The channel will not have the limitation that we have for objective reasons in the Olympic Games. The Olympics, because of the size and complexity, we are obliged to stay within the finite limit of sports and disciplines, although as you can see now the IOC is making an organised effort to renovate this programme. But the channel does not have this limitation and will not be confined to the very established traditional disciplines and sports. We would very much like to become a platform for the promotion of new disciplines and new sports, and we believe that the channel actually can be a catalyst for more rapid establishment for those sports as mainstream disciplines.”

On this front, Exarchos points specifically to easily shared, YouTube-ready sports that appeal to a younger demographic, such as parkour and skateboarding, both of which are currently at various stages of acceptance into the Olympic fold. Parkour is attempting to establish an international federation, with skateboarding competing for a place on the programme at the 2022 Games.

News will also form a key part of the channel’s output – not just sporting news but updates on commercial and infrastructural developments that have an impact across the industry. “We have the ambition,” he says, “of this becoming little by little the source to go to for information for all sports, not just for football or popular sports.”

The most adventurous plan for content on the channel is the range of original programming Exarchos says the organisation has lined up, in both short and long-form documentary and magazine show formats. “We want to create regional programming that will be of very high quality, about different kinds of sports, about the importance of an active lifestyle, about the big figures of sports, the history of sports,” he suggests.

This is what Exarchos sees as arguably the most fundamental content the channel will host. Coverage of news and events depends, to some extent, on viewers having an existing interest in tuning in. The rest of the channel’s output, Exarchos believes, will be the most engaging and interesting to a new, younger audience coming to the world of the Olympics for the first time.

“A big part of our work and current attention is precisely at creating those forms of content that are really relevant to the millennial generation,” he says. “And this content needs a completely different approach compared to traditional content. We don’t want to alienate, with the channel, the traditional friends the Olympic movement, obviously, but it’s very clear that the channel does have a priority to touch the hearts of younger people. To do that you need to speak the language that they understand, which I also believe is a very interesting and revolutionary language in modern media.”

For Exarchos, it is not just that the channel needs to host that kind of engaging, sharable content to thrive, but that its emergence and popularity has made the channel’s creation possible in the first place. “It’s interesting that we are living through a period of true revolution in media,” he says. “Especially digital media, and this is the medium of choice to engage and touch the hearts especially of the millennial generation. We are in a moment to take advantage of that.”

The precise timing is right, Exarchos says, because “the IOC is currently in a pretty strong position, both in terms of the fact that the Olympic Games are as popular as ever – you look at London, Sochi, they were the most watched and most followed events in the world – but also it’s in a financially and institutionally stable position”. Bach, among others within the organisation, saw the opportunity for the IOC to continue to meet its “obligation to do something more to promote and engage people in an active life,” which, after a long deliberation and debate, took the form of the Olympic Channel.

“So this is the basic thinking,” Exarchos explains. “It’s not as if the IOC all of a sudden decided to become a broadcaster. It is because it is as part of its mission to promote sports, to promote active lifestyle, and to provide inspiration to people to engage in this kind of activity. And we believe that best medium to do that is through the creation of the Olympic Channel, which is essentially a digital media platform.”

Exarchos also takes pains to be clear over what the Olympic Channel is not: it is not, he says, “an effort to promote organisations, it is not a PR exercise,” nor is it intended to be “the mouthpiece of the IOC or of the federations”.

It is also not an offshoot or an arm of the OBS. “The channel has its own identity, its own independence, its own management team,” Exarchos says. “There are some synergies between the two, including myself, but the channel will have its own means and resources to do its job. Obviously it will rely on the experience of OBS and OBS is supporting it on various levels, but I would say that the creation of OBS would not necessarily lead to the creation of the channel, but definitely has been a big help especially in the development.”

Most importantly, he says, “the Olympic Channel has not been created for the Olympic Games”.

“The Olympic Games is still the most televised event in the world,” he elaborates. “There would be no reason to create a channel for the Olympic Games because, thanks to the work of the rights holding broadcasters around the world, the message of the IOC and the Olympic movement goes around the globe like no other.

“The problem, really, is the period in between where the world of sports can struggle. And I’m not talking here about premium sports and properties like soccer, like football in the [United] States, like tennis. I’m talking about the core of most of the other sports. They suffer and they struggle to have some space and promotion in the period between the Games, and this is where the channel, we believe, can have some significant role in sustaining interest in those sports in between.”

It is for this reason that Exarchos believes the broadcast partners and sponsors of the Olympics “are delighted by this development.”

Because the channel will cover Olympic sports all year round, and promote less commercially popular sports which big broadcasters may presently shy away from giving too much airtime, Exarchos is sure that “the existence of the channel will actually support and promote the work of the broadcasters, because we can maintain the interest of the viewing public in sport, we can cultivate the sport, we can cultivate and support the big heroes that people can enjoy during the Games”.

Exarchos is insistent that the existence of the channel will in no way step on the toes of Olympic broadcast rights holders. Broadcast rights sales are still the single biggest generator of revenues, not just for the IOC but for the international member federations and National Olympic Committees (NOCs) as well. The announcement of the Olympic Channel came just a few months after US network NBC announced its massive US$7.65 billion, 18-year rights deal with the IOC, and a few months before Discovery finalised its own US$1.45 billion agreement until 2024 for the European rights. These deals, clearly, will not be negatively affected by the Olympic Channel’s launch, but Exarchos believes the channel can actually help to add value to them.

“What we are increasingly seeing is that some of the major rights holding partners want to move toward a longer term association with the IOC and the Olympic movement, and this is not only for the Olympic Games, it’s also for the period in between,” he explains. “So we discuss with them, with NBC, with Discovery when they fully start activating, the rights and with other partners in China and other countries, about practical cooperation with the channel within the area of their channels. This can be cooperation in the form of content and of distribution. We can make sure that they are getting value from their deals continually, throughout the Olympic cycles, not just every four years or every two years.

“Also, on a very practical and pragmatic level, we are already discussing and putting in place agreements of co-operation with the Olympic Channel for the creation of content and distribution. They know very well their areas, their countries, they can approach and touch the hearts of people in their countries better than anyone else. And also on the distribution front, regardless of the fact that we’re embarking on a global venture, we mustn’t forget that broadcasting still to a very big extent operates on a local level. The knowledge and technical abilities of a local partner remains fundamental.”

The sponsors, especially The Olympic Programme (TOP) partners, meanwhile, “will now have a platform where they can really associate themselves with the Olympic movement on a 24/7 basis,” Exarchos says.

“We have very advanced discussions with all of our partners,” he continues, “they are very excited by the project and I believe that what is more important is that they also as ourselves see this not as an opportunity of simple media buy but as an opportunity for an association with the Olympic values.

“Our partners fully understand that the younger generation are not impressed by commercials or in-your-face advertising, but they attach value where they feel respect. And I think this is what the IOC and the Olympic movement can offer to our commercial partners on an ongoing basis, which is associated to values in a world which is in constant need of those values. How can they associate their message and their values so that they are part of this world? I think this is what increasingly differentiates in today’s world organisations that have a future from other ones. What they are prepared to give back to societies; it’s a changing world and the smarted commercial organisations have started realising it. This is the way to engage and approach and establish a relationship with a younger generation that cannot be fooled, that is looking for transparency and is very strong and intelligent.”

With the countdown to Rio entering its final stage, there is still no official word on whether the channel will launch in time to air content during the Games, though Exarchos believes the decisions “will be made soon”.

“Obviously we will go through a range of testing in the next months,” he says, “because we want to make sure that first of all we have something that is very representative of our ambitions and is already good enough from launch. From a technical and content point of view we will be ready, we’re well within our objective. But we also need to have the ability to correct things, because I have yet to meet someone who can tell you, exactly, ‘This is something that will work, and this will not.’ We need to allow ourselves the luxury to adjust and chance things in that short period of time after we launch.”

Turning toward what is still his day job – the business of readying the OBS for the flurry of activity that it will be undertaking throughout August, Exarchos says that the preparations are “coming together very well”.

He adds: “We have been thinking very hard about the traditional coverage and I believe that it will be a very high standard, but I believe also it’s a turning point where the Olympics will enter big time into the digital world.” OBS is set to produce more digital content than ever before, including the introduction of its Olympic Video Player, a white-label digital offering for rights holders to distribute content online and via mobile apps, and curating a distinctive second-screen experience for the official Rio app.

These innovations, Exarchos believes, “will further enhance the introduction to new sports to people who have never seen these sports before and will help very much in the younger generation following the Games on their mobiles or tablets”.

On a technical front, perhaps the biggest revelation was not anything that OBS would be doing, but something it wouldn’t: broadcasting in ultra-high definition 4K. Despite the format’s explosion over the past 12 months, with 4K television sets now readily and (relatively) inexpensively available, Exarchos does not feel that the penetration is there to make the investment in fully covering the Games in the format worthwhile.

“I am reluctant to say that we’ll cover the Games in 8K or 4K, because ‘covering the Games’ for us means having a very high standard of coverage consistent across all 6,000 hours of television,” he says. “If we cannot do it for everything, we do not feel that we can say this. We will shoot some stuff in 4K for some of the broadcasters who are interested in that but for an event like this with 800 sessions – 6,000 hours of television – it is not responsible for us to say, ‘We covered the Olympics in 4K.’

"If you see the passion of the people, their love for sports, for their city of Rio, you have no doubt that even though the road will be difficult, the end result will be unforgettable.”

“We will continue the experiments with our Japanese friends on the front of 8K, but the full technology or chain of equipment is available for full coverage, but they are technologies we have to follow at some point, they will mature, and we use this Olympic Games as a testing ground.”

Rio will also serve as a testing ground for virtual reality (VR) broadcasting, another technological innovation that has broken through in recent times. The technology will be used sparingly – “for ceremonies and then for at least one highlight event per day in different sports” – but its use shows OBS’s desire to remain at the forefront of broadcasting developments.

“Again, we see that as a first-time experiment,” Exarchos says. “I believe this is the year VR becomes more mature, because of technological developments, but also because of conditions in the market. There is a lot of learning to be done, not so much on the technical side but on the production side and we do not pretend that this coverage will be as mature as our standard coverage, but I think it can offer a completely different type of opportunity and experience and for an event like the Olympic Games where it’s all about experience, providing an opportunity for people around the world to have a sense of being there is of extraordinary value. On the other hand I see, increasingly, people engaging in the gaming world, especially in the younger generations, how much more comfortable the are with using the gear that’s necessary for VR. I think that this year we have a convergence around this technology and I think Rio will be an excellent testing ground for this.”

The challenges Rio has presented – and it has certainly been the most visibly challenging Games in recent memory, with beleaguered local organisers plagued with setbacks and negative news stories surrounding everything from the readiness of the venues to the cleanliness of the city’s waters – are not, he says, especially out of the ordinary.

“I cannot remember any Games, starting with my own country [Greece, which hosted the Olympics in Athens in 2004 and was the first Exarchos worked on with OBS], where there were not challenges of one form or the other,” Exarchos says. “Organising the Games is an extraordinary challenge for any country in the world, even for the most advanced and sophisticated.

“For Rio, for the development of this city and the infrastructural problems the city traditionally has, the Games are a challenge precisely because they are a great opportunity to get Rio from a city with perennial infrastructural problems into a fantastic, modern, functional city. I think the additional financial and political problems in Brazil have made this more difficult but, on the other hand, if you see the passion of the people, their love for sports, for their city, you have no doubt that even though the road will be difficult, the end result will be unforgettable.”

 

Premier Package

 

By James Emmett

 

Around 82 broadcasters from around the world are about to spend some UK£3 billion on the latest three-year batch of Premier League rights. What they are actually buying is made in an industrial estate just off the M4 by Heathrow.

 

A cheer rises up from the ground floor of IMG’s sparkling new production facility in Stockley Park, near Heathrow Airport, and echoes around the open layouts of the upper floors. Paul Dummett’s rising thunderbolt of a strike has just drawn Newcastle United level with Manchester United in the dying moments of their midweek clash at St James’ Park in January.

There are not an inordinate number of Newcastle fans here at the Stockley Park studios, and the cheer is not a partisan one; it is simply the audible recognition of a crowning moment of drama at the end of another game that English soccer’s Premier League enjoys renown for: a last-minute equaliser to bring the final score to 3-3 at the end of a typically topsy-turvy, spirited and unpredictably encounter between two storied teams. It is an excellent showpiece game to be playing out during a media tour of Premier League Productions (PLP), the operation that IMG runs on behalf of the league here at Stockley Park.

Nick Moody, head of Premier League Productions at IMG, in the canteen at the company's Stockley Park base on 12th January

 

IMG began the piecemeal move of its production arm away from its old Chiswick studios and into the new facility in September 2013. Channel 4 Racing, the BBC’s snooker and darts coverage, and European Tour Productions are all produced from within the elegant glass-covered building. The Foster and Partners-designed property – large, light and modern – is being rented on a 15-year lease, and IMG has invested UK£40 million in a technical fit-out for the project, but fundamentally the facilities have been put together with the Premier League firmly in mind.

The space is dressed in such a way as to provide filming locations throughout the building; soccer shirts hang from ceilings; pillars are postered on the side that faces the nearest camera position. The gigantic banners that hang in a line down the central atrium of the building hint at the fact that the Premier League operation is ten to 15 times bigger than anything else IMG Productions does.

“Welcome to one of the biggest kept secrets in British broadcasting.”

IMG and the Premier League are in the final year of their latest three-year contract. Discussions on a new term are progressing, and, indeed, such is the scale and bespoke nature of the operation IMG has created for its flagship production client that it’s difficult to fathom of a credible alternative destination for the commission. Assuming the deal is renewed for another three-year term, the banners will have to be replaced to account for the Premier League’s impending move to drop Barclays as title sponsor. The hassle is likely to provoke a little internal schadenfreude amongst IMG Productions’ golf-focused employees, stationed on the ground floor of the Stockley Park building, but very much reminded of the status the Premier League holds around here on a daily basis.

Graham Fry, global head of production for IMG, has overseen the move to Stockley Park. “Welcome to one of the biggest kept secrets in British broadcasting,” he says to the assembled clutch of media from some of the Premier League’s more exotic foreign outposts. The output produced here will never be viewed on British screens but will, instead, be piped to 730 million homes across 185 countries across the world, through 82 direct international broadcast contracts. Every second of content the Premier League produces for foreign consumption is produced here.

The Premier League is justifiably proud of its international rights sale process. The numbers are astounding – the league is set to exceed UK£3 billion in international rights sales for the next three-year cycle – but the ‘product’ those international broadcasters buy into isn’t simply what plays out on the pitch. In tandem with IMG, the Premier League has developed a homogenised broadcast offering above and beyond anything currently on offer anywhere else in the sports market.

 

IMG first got its hands on Premier League footage in the 1998/99 season when it won the worldwide distribution rights in tandem with French broadcaster Canal+, whose negotiating team was led at the time by an ambitious young pup named Jérôme Valcke.

The agency-cum-production house started producing all ten games in any given match week in 2004, and Premier League Productions was formalised as an entity in 2005. The live game has always been the core product and the most compelling feature for foreign licence-holders, but a content service was brought in for 2010, and the core offering found itself supplemented with a consistent channel and solid shoulder programming.

Fry recounts an anecdote about the content service’s first week of existence: there was a fire at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium a few hours out from kick-off and the match was in doubt. The new channel had no alternative content to throw to, and Fry and his team got the jitters. Ultimately the match went ahead, and the first week of the content service was a success. Premier League Productions now churns out 11 hours of content a day and employs 42 full-time staff, with another 70 on seasonal contracts. It is a multi-million pound commitment on the Premier League’s part, but one that continues to reap dividends every third year when another cycle of rights go to the international market.

Both Fry and Nick Moody, head of Premier League Productions at IMG and on hand this January midweek night to show journalists around his workplace, think about the service as a two-pronged entity: core production and the content service.

Core production is essentially the packaging and distribution of every one of the 380 Premier League matches each season. Though only a handful are shown live on British TV screens each week, via domestic licence-holders Sky and BT, international licence-holders can be provided with all ten games each match week. Core production also includes broadcast services such as satellite and fibre bookings – and PLP signals are routed around the world via technology provided by GlobeCast, Arqiva and Eurovision – and the facilitation of any particular presentation requests from foreign licence-holders.

If Middle Eastern licence-holder BeIN Sports, for example, wants to present from pitchside at a particular game, PLP makes it happen. Similarly if a foreign licence-holder wants a unique post-game interview, PLP will facilitate on the ground; likewise a unique camera to track a particular player throughout a game. What’s more, the PLP service to licence-holders comes with a dedicated live angle – essentially a studio backdrop to create editorial verisimilitude for foreign licence-holders whose presentation teams are at work thousands of miles away from the UK.

For the multi-fixture days – the ones with seven or more matches kicking off at the same time, like Boxing Day, the final day of the season and a handful of other occasions across the year – PLP puts on a split-screen service called ‘goal rush’, which is a bit like the National Football League’s (NFL) celebrated ‘Red Zone’.

New for the current cycle is an in-house promotions department. Here, the team crafts beautifully produced promo spots for the biggest games of the upcoming match week. The content service also produces a regular stream of documentaries featuring Premier League stars past and present. Alongside the live programming, these form some of the most compelling content on the Premier League’s international channel, which is currently being taken by licence-holders in Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean.

Introductory explanations concluded, and the Newcastle v Manchester United game safely kicked off, Moody whisks the media off for a tour of the facilities. PLP staff are housed on one floor of the building in an open-plan office fitted out as an organic broadcasting environment. A bank of editing pods lines the side of the office, and at the far end sits a news studio, one of the manifold broadcast positions around the building, with a view back on to the lines of monitors and hustle and bustle of a busy work floor. At the opposite end of the floor is a room used, at the moment, by the Premier League’s social media team: a group of content producers from the LiveWire Sport digital agency, which ensures the league’s digital streams, predominantly its central Twitter account, give blow-by-blow accounts of the games in progress. Occasionally, the LiveWire crew are joined by colleagues from Red Lantern, which does a similar thing but on Chinese social platforms such as Weibo.

Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney fires his team into the lead from the penalty spot

 

Through the staff canteen – another broadcast-visible area and dressed appropriately – and down the stairs to the humming nerve centre of the building: the Main Technical Area, chock full of wires, sockets, switches and peril. People rush here to find a culprit whenever a screen goes dead. Hundreds of thousands of miles of cable – green for sound, orange for vision – are housed here. Tiptoeing through to the other side of the facility, the next stop is the Master Control Room. With just three games on this evening, there are just seven operatives in this evening, but this would normally be a hive of activity. A wall of screens spans the length of the darkened room. On the left, incoming pictures – taken from the various grounds either by PLP cameras or by domestic host broadcasters Sky or BT, depending on their live match picks. On the right, outgoing pictures, complete with graphical overlays.

The producer is the captain: he plots the course, books the guests and puts all the work behind it. The director is the first officer: he comes in on the day to take the controls, add his own touch and put it all together.

A handful of transmission suites sit within the Master Control Room, sectioned off by their own walls. One of them is for Sport24, IMG’s inflight and cruise service, which, according to Fry, is the perfect channel in sport. With no real competition as of yet, it’s true that its rights portfolio is staggering. It’s got near enough everything. The service goes to 11 airlines now, including Etihad, Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa and Emirates, and some 300 aircraft in total. An expansion across several channels is only a step away if rights acquisition and the attendant scheduling issues keep up at their current pace.

The problem, explains Fry anecdotally, is that the airlines don’t necessarily signpost the content they have. He was on a flight during the World Cup in 2014 and did his own survey, wandering round the plane to find just six people tuning into the beginning of the game. Ten minutes later, there were 26 watching, and after half-time, when word had spread, there were 56 watching.

There is a little more action unfolding in the main live gallery, just around the corner from the Master Control Room. There are nine live galleries within the Stockley Park building, allowing for the production of ten simultaneous live Premier League games, as long as the operatives in one of the rooms can handle two games at once. The biggest live gallery is busy tonight. Berry shows his band of media in just as Mike Dean, refereeing tonight at St James’ Park, awards a penalty to Manchester United. At the back of the room, an operative begins busily winding through replay angles, queuing them up to be analysed at the half-time show a little later.

Around another corner is another control room, this time for PLP’s Premier League channel, and again, this one is stuffed to the gunwales. Richard, the director, sits at the front; Matt, the producer, marshals the troops from nearer the back. He reveals that the penalty – a handball – was harsh and that the resulting goal, scored by Wayne Rooney, was the first time the Manchester United man had scored two on the bounce in the league since 2013. Before anyone has a chance to question the stat, he’s announcing to the room that there’s been a goal in another game that night, at Bournemouth, where Harry Arter has put the home team ahead.

Berry explains the relationship between the producer and director as like that between captain and first officer on an aeroplane. The producer is the captain: he plots the course, books the guests and puts all the work behind it. The director is the first officer: he comes in on the day to take the controls, add his own touch and put it all together. As a former producer himself, of course, he would say that.

Opposite the control room is the main studio at Stockley Park. Brightly lit and surprisingly spacious, it has room for three main broadcast set-ups: one hard set, one tactical area with a touchscreen graphics system, and one slightly cosier interview area. There are studios here at S

tockley Park. This one is almost exclusively used for PLP, but the others are leased out as and when the opportunities arrive. At IMG Productions’ previous residence in Chiswick, the BBC’s Football League show shared a dividing wall with ESPN’s main soccer production space. Here at Stockley Park, one of the studios is leased for a fee of UK£1,800 a day to the Al Araby 24-hour Egyptian news channel.

PLP has a regular line-up of presenters, including John Dykes, Manish Bhasin, James Richardson, Mark Pougatch, Kelly Cates and Karthi Gnanasegeram. Contracted ex-playing talent includes Andy Townsend, Don Hutchison, Danny Murphy, Michael Owen and Brad Friedel. Pougatch, Townsend and Hargreaves are on duty tonight and all three are sitting at their desks at the hard set, watching the game on the big screen at the back of the studio behind the camera.

It’s clear that Townsend calls the shots, talking constantly on his lapel mic to Matt back in the control room, asking to have replays queued up and laying claim to upcoming points of analysis for when the trio go back on air in a few minutes’ time at the game’s interval. Before that, though, Townsend has time to come over with Berry to show the media how the touchscreen technology works. Graphics are provided by Deltatre and the system, though it’s updated fairly regularly, is intuitive. Townsend is a pro, but a smirk when asked if he has colleagues that have struggled suggests that not everyone is as quick to learn.

Berry, who worked on four FA Cup finals as a producer at ESPN, explains that Sky’s Monday Night Football has to be seen as a benchmark production in sports broadcasting, but he hopes that PLP is forging its own path. “We aren’t broadcasting to a UK market, so we aren’t limited to the stiff and sometimes stifling way that some UK broadcasters work,” he says. “Our senior director spent a year working with NBC in the US, and he has brought some ideas that he learned and developed over there to us. The use of portrait screens in the studio, stand-up presenting, enhanced graphics and elements, all these things have given our output an international look and feel, which we believe makes us stand out.”

Standard broadcast time for each match is two hours and ten minutes, but the whole show takes three hours. As the goals continue to fly in at St James’ Park, those three hours will be well filled tonight.

 

Archived Value

 

By Hamish Muiry

 

What is a sports ‘archive’, and why should you care about yours?

 

Sports, like sportsmen and women, come in all shapes and sizes. Regardless of what sport you help to run, you’re all trying to achieve the same thing: develop your sport.

Developing your sport, and the participation thereof, hinges on your ability to do one thing. Get your sport or club in front of an audience and engage them.

Sports organisations now recognise that they are a brand in themselves. Just like others brands such as Coke or Levi’s, you need to engage with your audience to sell. What does any good brand do? It tells a story that connects with its demographic, followers, or audience. Without a doubt the best way to tell your story is with video.

Then the problem becomes where does all that new video that you’re making to engage your fans go… simple, you put it in the archive…right?!

What exactly is the sports ‘archive’?

The word archive typically has connotations of lots of dust, black and white films, or boxes of tapes under Dave’s desk. Actually, it’s just video content, and some of it’s older than the new stuff.

So for arguments sake, let’s not call it archive, but rather your ‘library’. Libraries have new books and old books after all so it’s a decent analogy for now. Anything post-live, should go into the library for safe-keeping and future exploitation.

Your library, will boast treasured moments from your sports history. As the custodians of your legacy, you have the responsibility to preserve and future-proof that content so that it can be enjoyed and inspire the next generation to take up your sport or support your team.

Right now, it’s probably at medium to high risk of loss in some way. Either through misplacement, mismanagement, or media degradation. However, with a little thought and care that doesn’t need to happen.

Is there value in your sports library?

Undoubtedly, yes. Will it mean hard and fast cash for your organisation? That’s less certain.

The reality is that your older content is needed when there is contextual relevance. An anniversary, a big news story, an upcoming championship. It will be exploitable at some point. It’s then about how you get it to partners. If it’s on a tape or hard-drive, there is a significant administrative burden in finding and delivering content. So sometimes it’ll be too onerous to bother, or you simply don’t have the time to fulfil so many requests. That’s a wasted opportunity for promotion.

Ultimately what you all want for your content is for it to be organised. Organised and accessible. That will then give you the spring board to exploit your content and help grow your sport.

That’s great Hamish but our sports library isn’t ‘business critical’

Well, it should be. Easy and elegant fulfilment of your content to business partners is now essential. The demand for video content is only ever going to grow from here on. It’s how you’ll spread your sport after all. That sounds pretty business critical. 

Sport is of course about live and people coming together for a shared experience in the moment. That’s why we love it. It brings us together at the ground, down the pub, or at the water cooler the morning after. It’s tribal! Your library will give you and your partners the ability to provide context and relevance around the live events, and feed the supplementary highlights and interviews afterward.

What about the really old video? Isn’t it going to be expensive to digitise our legacy assets?

Potentially, but that mostly depends on how much you have. Though remember ‘expensive’ is a subjective notion. There is only ever cost and value. You’ll need to decide where you draw the line in the sand.

Can you afford to digitise and store those legacy assets? Can you afford not to? A cliché but certainly a cliché worth considering. Because once it’s gone, it’s really gone. Can you imagine a world without “Here comes Hurst, he’s got some people on the pitch, they think it’s all over...” Whilst some Scots I know would prefer to live in that world, it would be a sadder one.

The good news is however that you can pay operationally. With the flexibility of public cloud infrastructure and video management software allowing annual subscription payment, the large CAPEX budget barriers are removed. You can now ‘pay as you grow’.

Demonstrating ROI to the finance director isn’t easy, of course. “If we digitise it for x, can we sell it for 3x?” might be their question. Maybe, yes. Maybe it is worth 3x, I’m not sure. Maybe you can supply library content to your broadcast partners and affiliates such as your member federations. Maybe your internal/external production teams will create more programming including best of the library. Maybe you bundle in archive rights as part of broadcast agreements for added-value, or you can leverage that to charge more for the service. All the above are routes to new revenue generations once you’re organised.

In any case, when it comes to your legacy, that’s not really the point. If it’s purely about the numbers then it’s maybe not for you. This is an emotional thing. Securing your organisation’s video legacy for the future life-blood of your sport and support. Put a price tag that against that?!


Hamish Muiry is a senior account manager – Sport & Media UK – at video management firm Imagen.

 

On track

 

New solutions in player tracking and live streaming have revolutionised the way video is used in professional soccer but the benefits have mostly been felt by an elite few. Now, through its unique and cost-effective products, Trackchamp is trying to bring these technologies to partners lower down the scale.

 

The use of video in soccer, both in terms of analysis and distribution, has advanced almost beyond recognition in the past decade. For the most part, however, the beneficiaries of that have been at the elite end of the sport. Now one company, Trackchamp, wants that to change.

“It’s not targeted at the top end of the market; it’s a very distinct positioning, I believe, where we want to be,” says Trackchamp managing director Martin Füreder. “We are not offering it to the Premier Leagues and the Bundesligas of this world.” He adds: “It’s about the democratisation of football.”

Formed as a joint venture between online betting company bwin and tracking technology specialist ChryonHego in 2012, Trackchamp offers products in two core areas.

Firstly, there is the automatic video production proposition, which allows for cost-effective yet high-quality live streaming with graphics statistics and can be run by an individual operator. With new improvements planned to release in summer Trackchamp’s video quality will go beyond live-streams. Then there is data tracking, which uses ChyronHego’s Tracab image processing technology to capture data in 3D and can be allied to the TCoach data analysis tool.

Different partners, Füreder says, have different needs, but Trackchamp has a range of solutions that can cater to them. “We are flexible there,” he adds, “but we are always trying to leverage as much as possible.”

Parts of the system can also be integrated into a partner’s existing set-up. “It mainly works as a single system, but what we can do is on the one side we can feed our content into other systems, so if somebody already has something in place, we can provide video or data to other tools,” Füreder explains. “On the other hand, we also have a video and data analysing tool so we can incorporate other content into our tool. It works both ways, so we can basically integrate into something that is already there."

Among Trackchamp’s partners so far are smaller soccer federations like those on both sides of the Irish border – the Irish Football Association (IFA) and Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL), and the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) in the Republic – and the Jamaican Football Federation (JFF). It aims to help such organisations “bring the content and the data closer to the fans” as well as broadening “the exposure for their sponsors”; delivering, in short, “something that brings an advantage to all parties”.

“And on the other hand,” Füreder adds, “there are companies where we would supply the content which they can then use for their products. This can be technology companies, this can be betting companies who stream match footage, for example, but it can also be fantasy league organisers who want to enhance their product and integrate data into their engine. It’s varied: there are video portal publishers, even TV broadcasters, if they want to enhance their TV coverage with interesting data.”